Dear Elizabeth, but Sarah Ruhl, Directed by Allison Narver. Seattle Rep through 8 March.
I will get to the play in a moment, but let me whine (and whine way too much) about Seattle traffic. This is the first time I have ever been late for the theater, despite living some 20 miles south of the Seattle Center, where the Rep is based. Yet that particular day, I failed to make it before the door shut. I had to see the first act after the play had begun, in (duh-duh-DUM) late seating.
Here's the story: The Lovely Bride was busy in the city in the morning, practicing for a Tai Chi demo, and I told her I would meet her at the theater and bring the LB's mom up (who, I may have mentioned, is an actress). Given the fact that the LB's mom has just celebrated her 80th birthday, we left early to get there with plenty of time, and made it down off Panther Lake to the major highways by 1 PM for a 2 PM show.
So, 20 miles, an hour to do so, should be OK. What I did not know about was road work in the proverbial Mercer Mess, which is the exit that leads from the highway to the Seattle Center (a couple miles). The first warning was when there was a dead-stop backup a mile from the exit itself, at which point it was too late to change plans. Finally making the exit, one could only see a packed road leading ahead off to the horizon. It was that sort of treacherous mess where the lights turn green but no one moves because there is no place to move. A motor vehicle mosh pit.
I mention to the LB's mom that with a mess this bad, there HAS to be a police officer directed traffic at the other end. And indeed, after taking an alternate route that sent us back into the town, rejoining the backup at the very end, there were not one but THREE police officers directing traffic on Denny and doing their part to contribute to a forty-minute snarl between I-5 and the Space Needle.
We worked though the worst of it with (relative) patience and grace, and I manage to deliver the LB's mom at the theater with five full minutes to spare (huzzah). Then I find out that my usual parking lot, which normally is cheap and pretty darn empty, is today full, including a mobile crane. And that all parking was twenty bucks for some event of which I had no idea. AND the parking spot I eventually found was presided over by a machine that obvious served a very long and very hard life, and was bitter about it and moving with the speed similar to that of the Mercer Mess.
And then in the middle of it all, a Seattle moment. Which I was standing there waiting with several other would-be parons for the parking machine to decide if its electronic life was worth continuing, a Dixieland band came down the street. No, I'm not kidding. Bass drum mounted on the chest, some horns, a trombone, a clarinet or two, and a sousaphone (or maybe a fluegelhorn). They bounced there way down Mercer, hooked a right in front of the theater, and were gone. It was just something I never thought I would see in Seattle, and there it was. And it really took the edge off all the rush.
In any event, while I got the Lovely Bride's Mom to the theater in time, the doors were closed before I got there. I was given (duh-duh-DUM) late seating, which meant that I and a few others who had been caught in the Mess had to wait, hearing the play in low tones but like Tantalus, barred from actually witnessing it. Then we were parked in the balcony boxes for the first act, which in the Leo K theater were actually not that bad, though I lost a chunk of the stage that was stage right/house left. It is not a play that moved around a lot, so that worked out.
And while I cannot blame the theater for the traffic, I will note that there is a concierge function in their promotions, which has in the past reminded us that a play starts an hour early or some big event was happening. This time, not so much. So yeah, an email saying "MY GOD, it will be quicker for you to drive around the Sound and take the ferry in from Bainbridge!" would have been appreciated.
Anyway, what all this means is that I didn't get the opening of the play, and was forced to cross-examine the Lovely Bride at intermission about what I had missed. "I got there by the time he came up to Maine to see her." "OK, so when they were exchanging poems?" "I caught the reference to Celluloid Bird." "No, there was stuff before that." So I don't know how the two main characters met, which I feel is a wee bit of a problem when you want to evaluate their relationship.
More than enough whining. Dear Elizabeth is a presentation of the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop (played by Suzanne Bouchard, and it is nice to actually see actors onstage at the Rep who have been there before), and Robert Lowell (Stephen Barker Turner, his hair in the continual upsweep of a man who often combs it with his hand in moments of frustration). Now, about 85% of the readers here will say WHO?. And that's part of the prob. These two are noted postwar poets, and the story talks about their long distance, mostly platonic relationship between 1947 and 1977.
And in many ways it is like attending someone else's high school reunion. I am not a poet and find poetry one of the harder things to get through - I find myself lulled by cadence and stop I paying attention to the words.. [Important digression however - one poet I particular like is Lester Smith, who has the benefit of being both very good and still alive. Lester's stuff I can read all day, though I would be hard-pressed to categorize him as either "raw" or "cooked" (which is a Lowell quote). But back to the play.] I don't know either of Bishop or Lowell or their work, and instead of the play opening new doors for me I found myself at the wrong booth in the cafe, overhearing things I know about only tangentially at best.
So, Ruhl has compressed the written correspondence into a dialog, filled with starts and stops and parts of life - marriage and lovers and suicides both potential and realized and stays in the mental hospital. And mixed with it are bits they are working on, ranging from getting published to reviewing other works. And as a word-cruncher by trade, the concept of fretting about the perfect choice of a phrase for weeks at a time seems like an alien concept. I fret about the right words,but I live in a world where deadlines loom like ogres with clubs, just waiting to pick off the slow ones.
And through it all, I was stunned by the idea that these folk are poets, yet get to go to Europe and Brazil. How the heck does that work, financially? Checking the wiki (the play gives us little clue) part of it is through teaching and grants, but also Lowell is listed in the wikipedia as being a Boston Brahmin (which means money in the family) while Bishop is mentioned as having an inheritance. Still, their presence in the greater world seems to not matter as they fight with their own creations, which in turn are mentioned only in passing.
That may be the biggest problem with this play - I'm not sure if it about the authors' work or their struggle or just a very polite relationship. It shows an affection between the two but doesn't really engage. Passions reserved for the work, which, like polite children, remain offstage. The closest thing to a conflict is case where Lowell converts his second wife's correspondence into a series of poems, which Bishop finds scandalous, which is very meta since Ruhl is turning THEIR correspondence into a play.
The actors are just fine, but the play itself is pretty flaccid, neither raw nor fully cooked. I cross-examined the Lovely B and the LB's Mom for further enlightenment, in case there was a central thesis put forth early on that I missed, but no, there was no early statement apparently that bound it all together. It was what it was, and getting there on time was no rescue.
Would I recommend it? Let me damn it by saying that if you like this sort of stuff (as in "the lives of post-war poets"), then you will like the play. After three strong courses of LBJ and August Wilson, anything would be a let-down, but this one made me wonder where that Dixieland band was heading.
A Connoisseur of Footnotes - So, I've just finished reading Joseph Lelyveld's HIS FINAL BATTLE: THE LAST MONTHS OF FRANLKIN ROOSEVELT (2016), which I recommend. I've long been puzzled ...
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